Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Larking About with the Sky Lark

John Richardson and Pip the Birding Dog
John Richardson and Pip

I’ve been focused on a couple of big writing projects right now, keeping me stuck indoors, but I made plans to break out on Friday, and headed to the Sax-Zim Bog with John Richardson. John’s been part of the Minnesota birding community for quite a while now, but settled here, in my own neighborhood of Duluth, just last fall, and I haven’t had a chance to get out birding with him. He just started his own birding company, Skylark Guiding Services, and since my dog Pip’s webpage is called “Such Larks, Pip!” after a line in Great Expectations, well—it seemed obvious that I should take Pip birding with a real Lark. And John, being the kind of easy-going birder I enjoy spending time with, was perfectly cool with bringing along a dog.

John’s from the U.K., which explains his choice of a Sky Lark for his professional identity—avian Sky Larks were introduced multiple times in America but became established only in the area on and near Vancouver Island, and have all pretty much died out now. They were introduced in Hawaii, too, where they are established, and where I saw them in back in 2000. John is apparently the first Sky Lark to become established in Minnesota.

I’ve had some pretty lousy luck with light when I’ve had chances to get out birding in the bog lately, but John apparently brought the sunshine.

Black-capped Chickadee

Unfortunately, not all the weather gods were favorable—the wind picked up right when I was trying to get a good recording of Boreal Chickadees singing. They don’t have a whistled song as Black-capped Chickadees do, but do have a cool “sub-song” that I very badly want to document. But my hearing is bad enough on those high-pitched sounds without dealing with wind making them even harder to hear in the first place, much less allow a clean recording. So that goal in going to the bog didn’t work out.

We didn’t see any owls, either, but I wasn’t expecting that, especially on a bright day. We got lots of nice birds nonetheless, starting with a Ruffed Grouse eating buds in an aspen.

Ruffed Grouse

Grouse have an amazing digestive system, with two offshoots where the large and small intestines meet, called caeca. Those caeca grow enormously in winter, because that’s where digestion of cellulose from those woody buds takes place. The caeca shrink in spring when they switch to berries and buds.  Throughout the bog, we kept seeing redpoll flocks, and there were quite a few at the feeders at the bog’s visitors center, along with the usual adorable red squirrels.

Common Redpoll

Red Squirrel

There weren’t all that many birds at the feeders, but the ones there were wonderful. At the suet and peanut butter feeder on Admiral Road, there were Black-capped Chickadees and Red-breasted Nuthatches, of course, but also a couple of Boreal Chickadees...

Black-capped Chickadee

Red-breasted Nuthatch

Boreal Chickadee

... and six Gray Jays. Intriguingly, one of those Gray Jays appears to be leucistic—the dark marking on the right side of the head was very washed out. It was a gorgeous if strangely asymmetric bird.

Gray Jay

Slightly leucistic Gray Jay

And speaking of corvids, there were ravens and crows all over the place. John is extraordinarily quick at identifying them from a distance, and actually accurate at it! The coolest thing was that the ravens were twitterpated. We saw one making cool swoops in the air while another, on the top branch of a snag, was watching. Then the flying bird alighted very, very close to the other. We also saw one carrying a big, rectangular white thing that looked at first glance like a piece of white bread but turned out to be a big piece of birch bark. Must be nest-building time!

Right when we decided it was time to return to Duluth, John spotted a tiny thing running on the road—a meadow vole! This one stayed out in the open a shocking amount of time, running across the road and ducking into snow piles only to come out again—something must have disturbed it in its burrow and it was searching for a new hideout. John was as excited as I was to watch and photograph it—birding with a kindred spirit is always special. 
Meadow Vole

Meadow Vole

We had such satisfying fare throughout the day, and the vole at the end was like the pièce de résistance, so we headed home pleased with how everything went. But no sooner had we arrived in our own neighborhood in Duluth than we came upon a bustling flock of Bohemian Waxwings devouring berries at a couple of fruit trees on Glenwood Street and flying across the road to digest their meals in the sunny branches of some big spruce trees.

Bohemian Waxwing

Bohemian Waxwing

At least three robins and a starling were also pigging out with the flock.

American Robin

European Starling

Two or three Cedar Waxwings were tagging along—for the first time ever, I even got a few photos with the two species side by side.

Cedar Waxwing and Bohemian Waxwing

Cedar Waxwing and Bohemian Waxwing

John was great fun—I’m hoping we can get out again soon. Pip was totally taken with him, too. Now when the three of us go birding, I’ll have to tell her we’re going to have “such skylarks, Pip!”

John Richardson and Pip the Birding Dog

Leaping Lizards

Every four years, except in centennial years divisible by 400, we add an extra day to the calendar year to make our poor human calculations of time coincide more precisely with the earth’s annual revolution around the sun. An extra day, even if it’s just on paper, seems like such a lovely thing—a day we can devote to birding or playing with our dog or whatever we wish. Of course, we don’t usually treat it that way—most people are doing business as usual today, as if Leap Year Day were nothing at all. Normally that would be a pretty neutral thing at worst, but this year's politicians are also committed to business as usual, which puts a darker light on the entire concept of extra days. 

My niece and my cousin’s daughter were both born on February 29 in 1984, in the same hospital outside Chicago. Only about 1/15 of one percent. (0.068%) of all people are born on Leap Year Day, so for two close relatives to accomplish this made the Chicago Tribune back then. Today those two young women are 32 years old, yet today is only the eighth birthday they’ve ever been able to celebrate on their actual birthday.  For them, Leap Year Day is hardly an “extra” day or a "business as usual" day.

Leap Year Day has been in effect since 1582, when the Gregorian calendar was adopted.  It seems a little odd that they’d have set that extra day in winter rather than a more pleasant time of year, though at least they were smart enough to make February the shortest month. I’d personally have set Leap Year Day in May, which even with 31 days isn’t nearly long enough to enjoy the fullness of spring migration. But Pope Gregory never knew of the existence of Blackburnian Warblers or Ruby-throated Hummingbirds. The world would be so much better in so many ways if we all thought more about warblers, hummingbirds, and other lovely birds, on Leap Year Day and every other day.

Thomas Jefferson, of course, did recognize birds and wrote a lot about them in his Notes on the State of Virginia. But neither he nor the other Founding Fathers ever anticipated an election cycle anything like this year’s, or I’m sure they’d have set elections for the shortest, not longest, years possible. Of all years to be saddled with an extra day!

But if we do have to deal with an extra day in 2016, what is the best way to spend it? I’m going to be looking for birds.  Now that my mother-in-law lives with us, I drive her to Port Wing every two weeks for her regular card club game, and today’s one of those days. On the drive, I keep watch for Snowy Owls. So far this winter I haven’t seen a single Snowy along that drive, even though Ryan Brady seems to be finding them everywhere near Ashland, which isn’t that far from Port Wing.But I'll keep watching and hoping. 

Snowy Owl
I photographed this Snowy Owl in Ashland, Wisconsin, when I was birding with Ryan Brady. That's the secret to wonderful experiences with Snowy Owls, apparently—go birding with Ryan.

Once we get to Port Wing, while my mother-in-law plays cards with her friends, I'll go off birding with my dog Pip. This is Standard Operating Procedure every two weeks rather than something completely extra once every four years, but there’s not much I can do about that.

This will be Pip’s first Leap Year Day ever, but I doubt she will even notice. I’ll do my best to see lots of birds, have lots of fun, and ignore the news as much as possible, but can’t expect too much, this being February in a year that has already lasted much too long. 

Trumpeter Swan
This year, the number of days is not the only thing that could be shortened—rumor has it that our Trumpeter Swan wants to shorten its name to the Peter Swan for the duration. The month, the politics—everything seems like more than anyone can handle right now. Spending the day with chickadees is a good policy anytime, and this Leap Year maybe more than ever.

Black-capped Chickadee

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Lead (For the Birds script from November, 2010)

Lead-poisoned Bald Eagle that did not survive, courtesy of Raptor Education Group. 

People have been mining and using lead for thousands of years. The very word plumbing is derived from the Latin word for lead, plumbum, which is also why in the Periodic Table, the symbol for lead is Pb. For millennia, lead seemed like a perfect metal. It’s soft and malleable, with a relatively low melting temperature, it never corrodes, and it’s very dense. Metallic lead is very rare in nature. Lead is usually found in ore with zinc, silver and (most abundantly) copper, and it’s extracted with these metals. Most ores contain less than 10% lead, but ores that are only 3% lead can still be economically exploited.

Because of its great properties, lead has been pervasive` throughout civilization, and not just in plumbing. Since the invention of firearms, lead has been the primary metal used in shot and bullets. It’s also the main metal used in a lot of fishing tackle, especially sinkers. Lead pigments were long used in paint to produce white, yellow, orange, and red, and are still used for this in China. Lead is an important component of car batteries today. Tetraethyl lead used to be added to gasoline to reduce engine knocking. Lead (II) acetate (also known as sugar of lead) was used by the Roman Empire as a sweetener for wine—some believe this caused the dementia that affected many Roman Emperors. Lead poisoning has been documented from ancient Rome, ancient Greece, and ancient China.

As useful as many of lead’s properties are, its dark side more than offsets its value for most purposes. Lead is a powerful neurotoxin, it interferes with a variety of body processes, and it’s toxic to many organs and tissues including the heart, bones, intestines, kidneys, and reproductive and nervous systems. Because it interferes with the development of the nervous system, it’s particularly toxic to children, causing potentially permanent learning and behavior disorders. Death rates from cancer, stroke, and heart disease, and general death rates from all causes, have been found to be higher in people with elevated blood lead levels. Evidence also suggests that age-related mental decline and psychiatric symptoms are correlated with lead exposure. No safe threshold for lead exposure is known.

One of the ways humans are still exposed to lead is by ingesting small or even microscopic particles from game meat. When a bullet fired from a high powered rifle hits soft tissue in a deer, the bullet instantly fragments into extremely tiny particles that radiate out for many inches into the tissue in what’s called a snowstorm effect. The particles are too tiny to be detected with our eyes or fingers, so they remain in the meat. Food shelves in several states have stopped taking venison from hunters because of the lead poisoning risks it poses.

Bald Eagles are functionally illiterate, so they haven’t been informed about the risks of eating venison shot with lead bullets. They scavenge on carcasses of wounded deer that escaped, and on gut piles of those that didn’t. Either way, the eagles are pretty much ensured of ingesting high levels of lead. And bird rehab clinics confirm that lead levels spike in Bald Eagles during and in the weeks following deer hunting season. As lead levels go up, eagles suffer the same kinds of neurological damage that humans do, and so are often injured or killed in accidents or car collisions. Some that are still clinging to life are brought to rehab centers. Treatment is extremely time-consuming, painstaking, and expensive.

The EPA declared last week “National Lead Poisoning Prevention Week” to raise awareness about the dangers of lead exposure to humans. Ironically, it was the exact same week that the EPA denied a petition to ban lead fishing sinkers that frequently kill loons, swans, cranes and other wildlife. Current estimates are that lead kills 10–20 million birds every year. A coalition of conservation, hunting, and veterinary groups had petitioned the EPA in August to ban lead in fishing tackle and in bullets and shot for hunting. Even though bullets fragment and scatter lead over a large area in soft tissue, causing a human health risk for hunters and their families who eat deer shot with lead bullets, and even though scavenging on animals that had been killed with lead bullets is considered to be the number one cause of mortality for the California Condor, and despite the over 500 scientific papers establishing bird mortality tied to lead, the EPA out-of-hand denied the portion of the petition dealing with regulating lead ammunition just three weeks after receiving the petition.

Then right during “National Lead Poisoning Prevention Week,” the EPA issued its final determination, denying the portion of the petition dealing with fishing sinkers. I looked up sinkers on an online fishing tackle website. There was a bold red notice at the top of the page: “Warning: This product contains chemicals, including lead, known to the State of California to cause birth defects or other reproductive harm. Wash hands after handling.” The most expensive sinker costs 16 cents—three of them cost less than a pack of gum—and many were much cheaper. Perhaps if sinkers cost a little more, anglers would try harder to hold onto them.

Because sinkers are so cheap, they’re pretty much a throwaway item, easy come and easy go. If a fishing line gets snagged, it’s simply cut away, so sinkers sit on the soft bottom of lakes, rivers, and streams like tiny time bombs. Lead doesn’t break down into anything else, so sinkers remain in sediments until a fish or bird picks them up. A sinker remains in a bird’s gizzard like grit, helping grind up the bird’s food as it in turn is ground up, the lead taken into the bird’s bloodstream and from there into vital organs. Lead isn’t excreted in the urinary system, so it accumulates, and a single 16-cent sinker has enough lead to kill.

When a person or bird gets lead poisoning, there’s no magic pill that instantly washes the lead away. The way humans and other animals are treated for lead poisoning is with chelation therapy—a chelating agent called EDTA forms complexes with lead ions to form large, nontoxic molecules called chelates, which can be excreted in urine. Chelation therapy is extremely expensive, takes a long time, has many side effects that need to be dealt with throughout treatment, and even under the finest care, over 50 percent of birds of birds with lead poisoning will die.

My good friend Marge Gibson is founder and executive director of the Raptor Education Group in Antigo, Wisconsin, and the former president of both the national and international wildlife rehabilitation organizations. She’s also one of the world’s foremost authorities in treatment  lead poisoning in birds. Marge was caring for a Trumpeter Swan with lead poisoning that happened to die the very day she got word that the EPA had denied the petition. She told me she wanted “to scream and yell and shout obscenities.  A beautiful adult male Trumpeter Swan that the state of Wisconsin spent HOW MUCH to reintroduce and then it is dead just that week.” Marge said that other swans with lead poisoning had died at the Wildlife Rehab clinic in Minnesota last week as well. She also just lost a Bald Eagle to it.

Marge puts in very long hours with her lead poisoning patients, often up with them through the night for weeks. Treatment takes several four-day cycles. For the first four days, Marge administers the EDTA twice a day. EDTA only binds to lead in the blood, not in other body tissues. So during the first four days, the bird’s kidneys filter the chelated lead out of the blood and excrete it in the urine. Then, over the next four days, the bird goes off the EDTA while some of the lead in body tissues is taken up by the blood. Then the bird goes back on EDTA for another four days to remove that lead from the blood. It can take several rounds of treatment to get all the lead out of the organs—a single eagle or swan may need 6 vials of EDTA, which cost almost $100 each. These birds virtually always arrive at her clinic emaciated, so she must tube-feed starving birds small amounts of a special emaciation diet several times a day. Not counting her time and the general costs of treatment, just the medication and special food for a single bird can run a thousand dollars. And after all that, about half of these birds die anyway. All so anglers won’t have to pay more than 16 cents for a sinker. This makes me want to scream and yell and shout obscenities, too.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Travel and Climate Continued

Camping in my Prius in Water Canyon
During my Conservation Big Year, I mostly went from place to place in my Prius. It took some doing to pack it up so it could serve as a camper, but I'd have used lots more fuel had I taken an SUV or minivan when I was camping.
When Russ and I moved to Duluth in 1981, we both yearned to live in the beautiful north woods, but made the decision to purchase an older house within walking distance of his workplace and the neighborhood elementary and high schools specifically so we’d not be squandering fossil fuels in our day-to-day lives or contributing to habitat fragmentation. In wilderness is the preservation of the world, but I've always believed that in cities is the preservation of wilderness. My daughter in Brooklyn doesn't need a car at all--she gets everywhere she needs to get in her daily life on bicycle, walking, or using public transportation. When Russ and I lived in Madison, Wisconsin, we rented a parking space a few blocks away and often didn't drive for weeks at a time. Duluth isn't as convenient as New York or Madison for public transportation, but we try to be mindful before we make a trip in the car anywhere. We drive at the slowest speed that is safe, courteous, and convenient to keep our gas consumption as low as it can possibly be when we do use the car. 

Russ has worked tirelessly over the years to make our house as energy efficient as possible. The first thing he did when we moved in was to research and buy the most efficient furnace we could afford, and then he quickly started re-insulating the entire house, room by room. We’ve kept our thermostat down well below what most people consider comfortable since we moved here, not turning it to the upper 60s downstairs until his mom moved in with us—she’s 97, so we have to keep it a bit warmer than we like down there, but keep our upstairs much cooler. Russ replaced our incandescent light bulbs long ago, as soon as alternatives were available. We installed an on-demand water heater rather than keeping a water tank heated in the Duluth cold. I drink a cup of coffee every morning, heating the water in a kettle that warms it to exactly 208 degrees and shuts off. I measure the water before heating it, so I’m not wasting electricity heating up more than I need. The keyboard I use at my computer is solar powered, and I got the most energy efficient laptop I could find, which I run on the energy savings mode. We have always tried to buy as few products as possible from overseas, especially China, knowing how on top of all the other economic, environmental, and human rights issues involved, highly polluting bunker fuel is what powers the container ships that bring all that stuff here. 

Russ and I were freshmen in college during the first Earth Day, and have tried from the start to be conscientious about our energy consumption, but as I researched my book 101 Ways to Help Birds, I became even more alarmed at the issues, and learned lots of little tricks for conserving even more energy in our day-to-day lives. Russ takes enormous pride in watching our energy bills go down year after year, even when fuel and electricity prices are going up, because we have tried so very hard to save energy.

In recent years, I’ve had many wonderful opportunities to travel to new places. I have so relished this—I grew up in a blue-collar home where no one traveled, and can see first hand how limited experiences of the world limit people’s understanding and outlook when it comes to larger issues. In my own case, it was seeing firsthand during my Conservation Big Year the habitat destruction and some of the huge energy costs involved in cattle production that led me to entirely stop eating beef—now some people are suggesting that giving up beef reduces our carbon footprint even more than giving up our cars. In my book, I recommended purchasing grass-fed rather than corn-fed beef because pastureland can provide multiple values for wildlife compared to cornfields. But it turns out grass-fed cattle produce far more methane gas, contributing significantly more to climate change. That was the saddest awakening when I was researching my book in the first place—even things that seem innocuous may turn out to exact a larger environmental cost than we realize. 

My favorite cow

Even though travel provides both pleasure and education, with our growing awareness directly leading to positive environmental changes, all travel comes at a huge energy cost. When I fly, I usually take the shuttle from Duluth to the Minneapolis airport to conserve energy for that leg of the trip. I took the train to Chicago when I wanted to hear Joel Greenberg talk about his Passenger Pigeon book. When my daughter lived in DC and I was in Ithaca, she took a bus to Ithaca and we drove home together for the holidays, to reduce our energy usage. When I do fly or take a long drive (after all, driving alone even in a Prius uses more fuel per passenger mile than flying) I try to purchase carbon offsets, sometimes through an airline, and sometimes through contributions to organizations that plant forested or prairie habitat.

In other words, I do my best to conserve energy and water wherever I happen to be. I try hard to be mindful, and to do my best. Really, that’s all any of us can do.

A few days ago, I received an email from Dr. Jeff Price, who is with the Tyndall Climate Change Centre in the UK and used to be with the American Bird Conservancy. Jeff had some very practical and helpful thoughts about ways we can reduce the impact of our travel on climate. He writes:

As one of the researchers at Tyndall Climate Change Centre we are of course concerned about travel and emissions.  Internally, we have a travel tracker that we are all supposed to use to help us decide if a given trip is ‘necessary’ or not.  Even within the Centre we have a broad spectrum of people and attitudes - from Kevin Anderson who … took the train from the UK to China for one meeting! even though it took weeks total travel time round-trip to people like myself who use offsets and considers the costs and benefits of a trip.  So, there is a range of views.

 Jeff suggests some ways of mitigating the damage done by our travel.

1) Travel – Almost all airlines offer offsets at the time you purchase a ticket. Depending on the length of the flight these are about $5 and are run through an independently audited account to make sure they are doing what they are supposed to do.  These are much better than the offsetting projects of the past and generally do what they set out to do.  The problem is that you may not know, or approve of, what the offsets are used for (Delta has used it to purchase forest land in Chile but others might use it on energy efficiency).  In that case, a little extra work can make sure that the offsets really are ‘For the Birds’.  Some of the bird tour companies have their own offsetting and they tell you exactly what is being done with the money – often preserving an amount of land in the tropics or reforestation projects in the tropics.  The World Land Trust has a carbon calculator on their website for flights and you can purchase their offsets through them and know the types of projects it is benefitting. 

2) The rest of your life.  … I do not know the situation where you are but in many parts of the US and UK you can make the choice to purchase 100% renewable energy.  Alternatively, the World Land Trust has carbon calculators for many other aspects of day-to-day activities that individuals can choose to offset. 

Jeff adds: 

I have no affiliation with World Land Trust, and it is possible other NGOs do something similar, so this is something positive you can do (and potentially could be the topic of a future podcast).

Jeff’s suggestions are excellent ones—he even inspired me to make a donation of a hundred pounds to the World Land Trust.

Coming up with positive actions that people can do to protect this world we all share is important, and is ever so much more inspiring and constructive than criticizing and shaming others. Each of us is different in our personal needs, in order to make our life meaningful and valuable. And each of us is different in our approaches to making a positive impact, and what we need to do to recharge our batteries to keep making a positive impact. Lang Elliott, who makes most of the natural sounds recordings I use to produce this program, wrote:
Even if our earth ship is sinking (due to climate change, rampant development, etc.), it remains imperative that we retain our ability to touch the miracle, and to smile, laugh, embrace, and love without judgement. Otherwise, we will not be able to live happily and react to life’s challenges with sanity and forethought.
Delta Airline's Carbon Offset Program

United Airline's Carbon Offset Program 

Black-capped Chickadee--fledging day!